In this article we’re going to take a look at a common cause of shoulder pain, injury and impingement in pressing movements, specifically as they apply to the tactical athlete.
The trapezius is shown in red on the diagram below and can be divided into 3 component parts, the upper, middle and lower traps.
Most people associate the ‘traps’ as being the muscle between the neck and shoulder, as this is often the most visible part of the muscle. In reality, as you can see above, the trapezius covers a large proportion of the upper back and is vital in supporting the scapula and in turn the shoulder during pressing movements, carrying loads overhead and more.
Over-active upper traps and under activation of the middle and lower traps is a major contributing factor to shoulder pain, impingement and injury – especially when it comes to the movements that the lower traps support. pressing, both in an overhead position as well as in horizontal pressing such as pushups or bench press.
In many cases this imbalance can be attributed to issues arising from poor posture. For example if we look at a desk worker who is hunched over a computer for 7-8hrs per day. In this ’rounded’ shoulder position the lower and mid-traps are lengthened putting them in a weakened position for extended periods of time. Their shoulders are internally rotated and no longer supported by the joint capsule meaning that the upper traps, pecs and surrounding musculature become over-active to support the load.
Now let’s take the example of the tactical athlete with the same poor posture, the problems that arise are now magnified as they regularly carry loads in excess of 80lbs on their back, wear body armor, carry weapons and other equipment. The long duration of activities such as rucking, marching, foot patrols, etc increase the time under tension on the upper traps, causing them to grow disproportionately stronger – often leaving the middle and lower traps under-developed.
When we think about the this volume of stress on the upper traps, combined with the amount of horizontal pressing movements (pushups, bench press) performed by a typical tactical athlete it’s plain to see that it’s only a matter of time before shoulder problems start to arise.
Implications for the Tactical Athlete
It’s fair to say that the lower traps are often missed in the majority of people’s self-directed training. Gone unchecked this will lead to injury, movement dysfunction and long-term, painful issues that will effect not only your ability to function in a professional context but also your movement in daily life.
Building the lower traps is not particularly glamorous or flashy, but it is essential. Like any structural work, think of it as your vegetables. Think of your big fun lifts, like squatting, deadlifting, pressing, Olympic lifts as your ‘junk’ food. You can only exist on ‘junk’ for so long before problems start to arise….of course, the big lifts are not junk, but you get the point.
Eat your structural vegetables!
In addressing development of the lower traps, it’s important for us to start out easy, progressing to more difficult variations of movement with progressive overload. The classic movement to develop the lower traps is the Trap Raise, however for many people this can be too advanced using the progression below, once you reach a stage where you cannot perform the movement correctly (without shrugging!) don’t progress to the next movement. This progression may take a number of weeks or months to work through.
Forearm Wall Slides
Stand a few inches away from a wall, start out by squeezing your shoulder blades together hard, next place your forearms in a vertical position on the wall, with your palms facing one another. Keeping your shoulder blades retracted slowly slide your forearms up the wall, get as high as possible without shrugging before returning down under control to the start position. Repeat for 10-12 reps x3.
As a more advanced variation you can perform the same movement with your arms at a 135degree angle instead of vertical. Ensure you keep your butt and belly squeezed tight to prevent overextension in the lower back.
Lie flat on your front on the ground with your arms overhead in a 45degree position so your body forms a ‘Y’ shape. Squeeze your shoulder blades, glutes and abs and keep looking straight into the ground. Lift your arms up and away from the ground without shrugging your shoulders. Repeat for 10-12 reps x3.
‘W’ Pull Apart
Similar in many ways tot he band pull apart shown below, the only difference is that the elbow should remain at 90degrees, which forms the ‘W’ shape at the end range of the movement. I’d suggest using a weaker resistance band for this, or even a theraband
Banded & Isometric Pull-up
I’m not a fan of the banded pull-up, but in this case the accommodating resistance can actually help us. In the top of the pull-up, the scapula is depressed and retracted with the lower traps working as they should to create stability. Building isometric strength in this position is key for the tactical athlete.
Aim to build towards 3x20s holds. This is A LOT harder than it sounds and once you reach this standard your shoulder will be significantly more stable. As a progression I’d recommend starting out with 5x5sec holds and gradually work to increase this over time.
This movement should be controlled throughout, notice how the athlete allows their shoulder to ‘slump’ forward between each rep ensuring he is consciously retracting his shoulder blades before, and throughout the movement.
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Physiopedia. (n.d.). Trapezius Myalgia, Retrieved from http://www.physio-pedia.com/Trapezius_Myalgia